Don’t Sweat NAFTA, Eh?

Did someone from Barack Obama’s campaign call an official from the Canadian Embassy and tell them that the senator’s opposition to NAFTA is just “rhetoric,” as CTV reported ? No, according to both the campaign and the embassy. But whether or not someone made the call, the real question is: Would it even have been necessary?

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe flatly denied the original story . But when more details emerged—economic adviser Austan Goolsbee may have placed the calls to a Canadian consulate in Chicago—the campaign stopped responding head-on. Today on a conference call, a reporter asked if Goolsbee had ever phoned a Canadian official in Chicago to discuss NAFTA. Plouffe reverted to the blanket denial that “the story is just not true. … Our guy and the Canadian ambassador denied this. It’s just not true.”

Fine, innocent until proven otherwise. But here’s the problem: Goolsbee didn’t need to make the call. Canada already knew that the candidates’ new tough-on-NAFTA rhetoric was political, not permanent. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said as much. “If a future president actually did want to open up NAFTA, which I highly doubt, then Canada would obviously have some things we would want to discuss,” Harper said recently. From CTV :

But Harper also noted that assertions made in the heat of political campaigns should be taken with a grain of salt.

Indeed, the whole NAFTA pile-on has been conducted with a wink and a nod. When Tim Russert pressed Clinton during Tuesday’s debate, she said she would withdraw from NAFTA —unless we renegotiated it. Obama agreed. But “renegotiation” doesn’t mean “overhaul.” When asked for specifics, both candidates say they would impose labor and environmental standards. But they don’t say they would scrap the system that currently benefits farmers in Obama’s home state of Illinois and drives Ohio’s manufacturing jobs overseas. The promise on Obama’s Web site to “amend” NAFTA is hardly abolitionist: “Obama will work with the leaders of Canada and Mexico to fix NAFTA so that it works for American workers.” For NAFTA haters, that’s weak consolation.

Whether or not Goolsbee placed a phone call, the reassurance is implicit: We’re not going to have a president who aggressively resists free trade and brings jobs back from overseas. (A subject on which McCain has been upfront .) They may well try to humanize the agreements and make them more palatable to American workers. But it’s difficult to see the candidates living up to their current rhetoric, and Canada is certainly OK with that.